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Hawaii astronomers would find listening better than arguing


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POSTED: Wednesday, April 08, 2009

This year has been declared the International Year of Astronomy. I am an amateur astronomer and I hope the Big Island of Hawaii will continue to be the world's premier center for astronomy research. Towards this end, I am calling on all interested parties to become astronomy ambassadors.

An observatory partnership hopes to build a 30-meter telescope which, with advanced adaptive optics, will see better than the Hubble Space Telescope. Several revered members of Hawaii's host culture oppose putting any more telescopes on Mauna Kea.

Their objections are not trivial. Mauna Kea is part of the ceded lands. That means it legally belongs to the Hawaiian people. Ceded lands are administered under a trust by the University of Hawaii for the benefit of native Hawaiians.

The university charges the observatories $1 a year in rent. This is disturbing to some. It might be disturbing to you too, if you were the beneficiary of such a trust.

Mauna Kea is sacred to the host culture, just as Mount Olive is sacred to Christians. It is a place their elderly kahunas went to die.

The American culture is one in which we expect anyone putting forth a proposal to have “;all their ducks in a row”; before they come to make a request. The Hawaiian culture, in contrast, is a consensus culture where everyone has a voice in shaping the proposal.

Thus what I am asking is something we find difficult to do: bring up the issue of observatories on Mauna Kea with your Hawaiian friends and then, instead of brushing aside their concerns or preaching about progress, listen to them. Let them tell you how they feel. Talk story about these issues and try to understand their point of view. Ask them to tell you how their friends feel, too. Leave an open doorway to discussion.

After listening to your friends, pose this question: Is it your opinion that the world's best observatories should be removed from the world's finest place to observe the heavens and relocated to Chile and Mexico, or is there some other consensus our cultures could arrive at which would allow astronomy to continue to develop on Mauna Kea?

I believe we can find a joint solution. Hawaiians are justifiably proud of their culture. However, they are also Americans, and most of them are proud of being Americans. The Hawaiians were the best early astronomers on Earth. They sailed to Hawaii, navigating by the stars, hundreds of years before the Catholic Church put Galileo under house arrest for stating the Earth revolved around the Sun! The Hawaiian culture has a vast interest in observing the stars, as expressed in an 1890 letter to Lick Observatory from Hawaii's last king. Some of the current Hawaiian master navigators voice support for the Mauna Kea telescopes.

Mau Piailug, their teacher from Micronesia, states in a newly released documentary his belief that ancient Hawaiian navigators and kahunas went up to the top of Mauna Kea for the purpose of observing the stars. Thus our interests are not as far apart as might appear at first glance. But first, we need to listen, we need to pay attention to their concerns and show respect.

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Terry Wehe Ryan is an amateur astronomer who lives in Kamuela.